There are only three of them known to exist on Earth — one male and two females — and they live in some of the most remote forest habitats on Maui. The po`ouli (Hawaiian for “black head”) are thought to have lived in Hawaii for centuries, but were only discovered by scientists thirty years ago. And on Monday a “last-ditch effort” will be launched to bring them into captivity and establish a breeding pair, hopefully saving them from extinction.
“Establishing a breeding pair of po`ouli may be the most challenging task we’ve ever attempted,” said Alan Lieberman, avian conservation coordinator for the Zoological Society of San Diego, one of many groups involved in the effort. “We have successfully bred several Hawaiian bird species … and even reintroduced them into the wild, but to start off with only three birds, all of which are at least six years old, just increases the difficulties.”
A team of biologists will fly into Hanawi Natural Area Reserve next week, with six additional eight-day trips scheduled during February and March. All three of the birds were captured and tagged six years ago, but finding them — measuring less than six inches long and weighing less than an ounce each — will not be easy.
“Saving the po`ouli is without a doubt a tremendous challenge,” said Paul Henson, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific islands office. “Our hopes and prayers go with this team into some of the roughest terrain in Hawaii.
“We have no guarantees we can save the species, but we have to try,” Henson said.
This latest endeavor follows an effort last year to move a female po`ouli into territory known to be inhabited by a male. While they did not breed, the relocation provided much of the experience that will be tapped in the new capture effort.
The stocky little bird with a black mask is part of the Hawaiian honeycreeper family. Known to scientists as Melamprosops phaeosoma, it is so unique it occupies its own genus. Scientists note that it is the only Hawaiian forest bird to rely heavily on native tree snails as its food.
“Sadly, fossil records tell us that we already have lost 82 Hawaiian bird species, including 26 since Europeans first visited the islands,” Henson said. “Our challenge is to make every effort possible to save this unique piece of Hawaiian heritage. I believe the effort we are now beginning gives us the best remaining opportunity to do so.”
The Zoological Society of San Diego is very active in Hawaiian conservation efforts, and operates two bird conservation centers: the Maui Bird Conservation Center in Olinda and the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island.